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Separation Anxiety

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What is Separation Anxiety Disorder?


Separation Anxiety Disorder is a childhood disorder in which a child becomes distressed at, or displays concern over, separation from key attachment figures, often their mother. Their fear is sometimes based in the belief that harm will come to the attachment figure in their absence. The child’s persistent worry about this is often seen in attempts to avoid separation situations such as: being left with babysitters, going to bed, or attending school or preschool. In more extreme cases a child will refuse to be in a separate room to their attachment figure. The fears can also be evident in the content of nightmares in some children.


There is a close relationship between “School Phobia” or school refusal, and separation anxiety in younger children. Children will sometimes report feeling fearful of attending school. However on close questioning it often becomes apparent that their fear of attending is related to a fear of being separated from their caregiver rather than a fear of what will occur in the school environment. By contrast, Social Phobia tends to become a bigger cause of school refusal in older children, where a fear of negative evaluation leads to a desire to avoid.



What causes separation anxiety?


Separation anxiety can be caused by a wide range of factors, some of which include: genetic predisposition, anxious parents – particularly if their parenting style tends to be overprotective, and traumatic incidents. For example, it is not uncommon for a child to develop separation fears after the child or one of their parents is involved in a serious motor vehicle accident. Separation anxiety can also emerge where a parent has suffered from a chronic illness, a family member such as a grandparent dies, or after the separation of parents.


It’s important to say at this point DON’T FEEL GUILTY! While there are sometimes things we have done as parents to contribute to the separation anxiety, no parent is perfect. In fact it is sometimes because we are being so zealous in trying to look after our children that we become a little overprotective. While we might be able to identify mistakes we have made in the past this is only constructive if we focus our energy on trying not to repeat the errors rather than obsessively blaming ourselves


Parenting will always involve some amount of trial and error. That being said, it is certainly important to address separation anxiety early on to reduce the risk of anxiety problems persisting or compounding. We should do what we can to learn how to be better parents, but it will always be a matter of fine tuning our approach as we go along. Each child is different and we need to adjust our parenting style to the needs of each child. The secret to good parenting is not getting everything perfect first time but having the courage to regularly evaluate our approach and where necessary change tack if what we are doing is not producing the results we want in our children. It is also a matter of being willing to seek help from elsewhere without seeing this as a sign of weakness.



When should I seek help for my child?


Separation anxiety is an extremely common fear, particularly in younger children. Many children will “grow out of it” as they gain more experience at being separated from their parents and are encouraged to be more independent.


While it is impossible to draw a clear line as to when to seek professional help, generally speaking, if the anxiety persists and/or is causing marked distress or interference in a child’s development or functioning it is worth consulting a mental health professional such as a Clinical Psychologist or paediatrician for advice.


For details of treatment in the Sydney area click on “How Do You Fix It?” below.



Please note: The information provided above is very general and should not be relied on as medical advice. Please consult a GP, paediatrician, psychiatrist, or Clinical Psychologist for advice on your child’s specific situation.


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